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This Place Looks Like Italy But Costs a Fraction of the Price (And Is Only 5 Hours Away)

Italy doesn’t come cheap. So, take your Italian vacation here instead.

It’s the fifth most popular country in the world for tourists, so naturally, Italy will hit your wallet. Hard. The average room rate in Rome is about $160 and, to be honest, if you yearn for more than four sad walls and a double bed, you’ll be spending a whole lot more. It’s no better in Florence or Milan and it’s even worse in Venice. Then there’s sustenance. Unless your idea of Italian eating is heading to a fast-food chain and ordering up the McSpaghetti, it’s hard to chow down for under $30 a day. And that’s pretty damn tight. Plus, kick in about $10 a day for transportation—minimum. Let’s not forget airfare—about $1,200, depending on departure city and time of year. So, one exceedingly mediocre week in Italy will cost a couple roughly $4,000. Oh, you also wanted to go see the sights, visit more than one city, have some drinks, and buy yourself something nice to take home, right? Let’s toss in another grand to be safe.

Or, you could go somewhere else to get your Italian fix. Somewhere closer, cheaper, and—believe it or not—somewhere just as beautiful. What wondrous place could this be? Why, it’s Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. OK, OK. I know what some of you are doing. You’re abandoning this article—frantically hitting the back button, leaving this site, threatening never to return again. You’re cursing at me. Calling me a clickbaiting expletive. But, hear me out. Just for a moment. Read on, it won’t take long, and if you’re not somewhat convinced by the end, then hit the back button, write off this site forever as one stuffed with lies and garbage, and then call me a clickbaiting expletive.

A Lake Even More Beautiful Than Como

You may already be skeptical of my thinking, so you may not be inclined to believe me when I write that Lake Atitlán, in Guatemala’s highlands, is more beautiful than Italy’s Lake Como. But, I’m not alone in this opinion. The author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, who in addition to his many novels, essays, and poetry collections, wrote three volumes on his travels and jotted down this backhanded compliment in Beyond the Mexique Bay: “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches the limit of the permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with the additional embellishment of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” Basically, it’s too beautiful.

And it is.

The lake is a tranquil thing, almost unnaturally so. As though the millennia of volcanic activity that created Atitlán also tuckered her out. It’s like a colicky child that’s finally gone to sleep or an addict who’s been strung out for too many nights. This thing is down for the count. The chaos has subsided and she’s fast asleep. But the past is all around—three volcanoes loom like sentinels sent by God just to keep everyone on their toes. Together it’s an otherworldly vision, fictitious make-believe. Or, as Huxley called it, an “impossible landscape.”

Boat Rides and Masks Much Cheaper Than Venice

Eleven villages are nestled into the slopes and hills that surround the lake. Most of them are named after saints—San Marcos, San Pedro, Santiago—though the most populous town is Panajachel, a Kaqchikel-Mayan word describing a place where fruit trees grow. Pana, as everyone calls it for short, is a vibrant gateway city situated just off an artery of the Pan-American Highway. It’s a city of neon and dirt, where expats drink cheap beer in verandas overlooking the main drag, Calle Santander. No, it doesn’t look like Italy, but it has the same feeling—a strange brew of chaotic relaxation. There’s shopping here, a lot of it. You can buy stunning wood-carved masks—I bought six for the same price I spent on a single one at Ca Macena in Venice.

The main mode of transportation here is the tuk-tuk, and while this might help you within a village, it’s difficult to travel between them. After all, some are difficult to access by road. Instead, there’s a much better option: a private boat. It’s the fastest, most scenic way to go village-hopping and your captain will gladly escort you to as many as you can handle, all for the shockingly low price of $110 per day—and that’s for as many people as the boat can handle. You may be able to haggle it down, but I’d advise against it. It’s a fair price. Your hotel can call and arrange it all for you. Now, compare $110 per day to the gondolas of Venice, which start at €80 ($88) for 30 minutes. If you’d prefer to just take a water taxi in Atitlán, it’ll set you back about a minuscule $2 from village to village—compare that to Venice, where the journey from the airport to San Marco is about $110.

A Village as Striking as the Cinque Terre

Imagine a small town sleeping in the crevices of sloping hills, each home along each winding road painted brightly in blue and yellow and pink. It’s not Manarola or Vernazza or any of the other over-touristed towns of the Cinque Terre, but the quiet oasis of Santa Catarina on Lake Atitlán.

There are 960 buildings here, many of them dazzlingly colorful. It didn’t used to be this way—in 2017, Pintando el Cambio (“painting the change”) was established by a Guatemalan journalist to help revive an area wherein 70% of its residents live in poverty with a very simple idea: a tapestry of murals. Tourism, after all, can be an economic boon to a city where traditional industries have long ago dried up. And, as the Cinque Terre has proven for decades, folks are willing to flock to brightly-colored buildings sitting atop geographic wonderlands.

Each family in Santa Catarina chooses their own colors and patterns, cleans the walls of their home, and applies the base coat. The designs are then applied with stencils, each of them styled to look like the ancient designs of their Mayan ancestors. There are birds and cats and corn and butterflies. The paint and supplies are all donated by businesses and individuals. You can donate, too—brushes are $15 and a gallon of paint is $20.

Eventually, Pintando hopes to transform all the villages of Lake Atitlán. For now, Santa Catarina stands alone, a dazzling hamlet where the water and the sky are separated by a long rainbow of Mayan hues.

A Meal as Gluttonous as a Roman Banquet

Yes, Italians have pastas and pizzas and meats slathered in sauces. But, one of the finest enjoyments one can have in Italy is the simplicity of sitting down with a liter of wine and a charcuterie plate piled to Tower of Babel height with prosciutto and salami and pancetta. OK—before the food historians begin typing out angry corrections—the French coined the term “charcuterie,” but the Romans had a hand in its invention. To anyone unfamiliar—it’s just a big plate of cured meats and cheeses. It’s good.

And on the shores of Lake Atitlán, of all places, I had just about the best charcuterie plate of my life. El Artesano is hidden behind a bamboo fence in the village of San Juan. It’s not meant to be stumbled upon, you have to go in search of it. But, behind its nondescript presentation on a nondescript street is a secret garden. And when you open the wooden gate and walk down the stairs to this hidden land below, you’re immediately transported far, far away. There are scant few tables and touches of old Europe—broken phonographs and black-and-white photographs, a lion-spitting fountain and a sleeping cat. Pots and pans hang from above, as do pig legs, drying in the Guatemalan sun.

The chef and curator of this cured meat paradise is H. Dietrich Gantenbein, Swiss by ancestry, Guatemalan by birth. I ordered a plate of two dozen cheeses (this is not an exaggeration) and almost as much meat, with a jug of wine on the side for good measure. And the bacchanal began. The bill wasn’t cheap by Guatemalan standards—about $60, but it could have served four rather than a gorging drunken couple.

INSIDER TIPFor the love of all things holy, if you plan on eating here, you MUST make a reservation.

A 5-Star Villa Hotel as Gorgeous as a Tuscan Manor

Maybe it’s because of the scandalous stories that no doubt took place within them or the shocking opulence that so often accompanies them, but, damnit, I love a European villa that’s been converted into a hotel. A former grand property made grander by the ghosts of the relics of aristocracy—a venerable duke or a deposed princess, perhaps. Usually, the family went bust under the weight of their own spending. And now, they’ve no choice but to let the inferior masses kick off their shoes and sleep in their beds at a cost of $500 a night.

Casa Palopo, a Relais & Chateau hotel (and a Fodor’s Finest 2020 winner), was once a private residence, though certainly not as ancient as those in Italy. It’s only been a hotel for two decades, half of which has been under the ownership of Claudia Bosch. Hers is an interesting story: upon arrival at the hotel in 2010, she fell so madly in love with it, she decided to become its proprietor. It’s easy to fall under Casa Palopo’s spell, just as she did. It’s a colorful villa in the hills between Santa Catarina and San Antonio, decorated as though an exiled count roams its halls accumulating the furnishings and ornaments of local artisans.

The beauty of the hotel hits you hard and fast and then comes the aroma. Most fashionable hotels have a signature scent, and this one is citrus-forward, like you’re holidaying among the lemon groves of Sorrento. Even the L’Occitane bathroom products give you a craving for limoncello.

Each of the rooms, and there are only fifteen, are individually designed and decorated—no two are alike. And almost all have magnificent views of the lake. And, while it’s quite likely that a room that looks and feels like the ones in Casa Palopo will cost $500 a night in Italy, here the starting rate is $230 in the summer months.

Did I Mention How Easy It Is to Get Here?

There are numerous direct flights from the U.S. to Guatemala City, including out of Miami, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, with flight times ranging from 2 hours 50 minutes out of Miami to 4 hours 35 minutes out of Los Angeles. Compare that to the minimum 8-hour flight from the U.S. to Rome. And the prices ain’t bad either–$300 fares are common. I flew business class round-trip for a hair under $700.

To get to Lake Atitlán is a three-hour drive—but it’s a pretty one. Or, if you’re in a rush, Casa Palopo will gladly send their helicopter for you. It’s not inexpensive ($1,620 plus a 10% tip), but even by splurging on this, you’re still coming in under your mediocre Italian vacation.